Saturday, December 22, 2012

Bird Myths, Pt. 2: African Bird Myths

       When I was writing "The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars," (see the Prologue and first four chapters here), I made Capt. Robbin Nikalishin a birder. What better qualification for the man who will head up the mission that encountered the first intelligent lifeform known to humanity -- and who happened to be big birds? During the mission out, there was a lot of boring downtime and one way the crew entertained itself was by telling bird myths, each crewmember telling tales from his or her own culture. Now, this section will be cut or drastically emended if I ever get that monster ready for publication, but I did too much research and had too much fun writing it to let it all disappear, so what better place to display it than on a blog devoted partially to myth in literature?
       I'm sure there are a lot more African bird myths than these that I discovered in the course of my rather hastily done research, but these are a starter.  I'm keeping all the byplay among the crew in this section.  I think it's rather amusing and instructive about what the crew is like and what people understand about their world in the 28th century.  I think you can see, however, why I'm going to have to cut all this part out of the finished novel (supposing I ever finish it).  It simply does nothing to advance the plot.
       Note: Capt. Asante Kibwana (aka Kibby) is Capt. Nikalishin's Second in Command for the mission; he hails from Niroba in East Afrik.
Hammerhead Stork, in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

Emmie Bonnet corralled Jon and Mosey and they headed off to the Galley to fetch hot gumby and muffins for the new arrivals, who were soon gorging themselves.  Then Kibby said, “I really should take the Bridge so Wally and Lea can come down.
       “Not until you give us your tales, Captain,” said Robbie.  “You said they were short.”
“They are; in fact, after this fine tale we’ve just heard, they may seem a bit anticlimactical.  The first isn’t really a story – it’s just a bit of Afriken folklore about a creature called the Lightning Bird.  It’s sometimes equated with the hammerhead stork … ”
“Oh, yeah!” exclaimed Robbie.  “There are all kinds of superstitions about that bird – harming one of them is supposed to bring bad luck and it’s considered an ill omen for it to fly over your house.  It builds these gigantic nests, and sometimes people will see a hammerhead fly in and then another animal, often a snake, comes out, so it’s gotten the reputation of being a shape-shifter, like our friend Garuda.  But in this case it’s only because other creatures often share a hammerhead’s nest.”
“Aw, Captain, you’re stealing my thunder!” said Kibby with a grin.
“Well, if it’s real birds we’re going to talk about, I’m likely to know something!  But I don’t know anything about this Lightning Bird business.”
“A folktale says that lightning is a magical bird that strikes down from the sky.  You can see where that comes from, considering how herons and storks strike down lightning-fast into the water with their beaks.  It’s said the bird only manifests its physical form to women; men see nothing but the lightning flash.  It’s been said to run up a woman’s hoe and scratch her body; certainly lightning might produce a phenomenon resembling that.  The bird is said either to enter the ground at the point of its strike or to leave its egg in the ground.  Its fat is the fuel of a lightning strike and was valued in folk medicine if you can dig it up.  Sometimes a shaman might very well have faked what he or she found at the site of the strike.”  Kibby looked apologetic.  “You understand, nobody in Afrik believes this stuff anymore, or at least nobody but the least educated and most superstitious remnant of the population.”
“Well, nobody in Ind really believes Garuda is out there flying around either,” said Nani, “but the tales are a rich part of our culture.”
“And the Mythmakers said, The closest humans can attain to deity is the symbolism of myth and art,” said Robbie.
Avi Oman added rather gravely, “And they also said, To achieve understanding of the unlike is a divine goal.  Isn’t that what we’re doing today?”
A voice came over the intercom.  Lt. Running had arranged things so the Bridge crew could observe the proceedings.  “Cmdr. Smallguard here,” said Wally.  “Captain, what’s this hammerheaded stork look like that would make people think it was the Lightning Bird?”
Robbie explained that the bird’s crest made its head appear in profile to extend on both sides of its neck, like a hammer.  “If I’d known Capt. Kibwana was going to talk about it, I’d have brought a picture.  I have a bunch of birding vids with me on this mission – you see how my tastes in entertainment run!  I’m daresay there’s a hammerhead in there somewhere.”
Ina Malope spoke up suddenly.  “In my part of Afrik we call them ‘hammerchops.’  It’s not because they chop down – it’s from the language that used to be spoken PDA by the Uropian settlers of Southern Afrik.  ‘Chop’ meant ‘head’ or something.  Isn’t that funny?”
“Um,” said Robbie, thinking that what he had read was ‘hammerkop,’ but he wasn’t certain enough of that to correct the Ensign.  “I tell you what – if I find something in my vids, I’ll display it in here for everybody to see.  Maybe I’ll put up the shoebill stork, too.  That one has a real primitive look.  What’s your second tale, Kibby?” 
 “It’s from a Shona myth … ”  Kibby glanced at Ina, who was looking suddenly distracted; Mark’s hand was slyly groping about beneath the table.  “ … about the Sunbirds, which are probably swallows.  Swallows migrate down to that part of Afrik in the spring, so they are linked with the strengthening of the sun.  The tale goes that the Mother-goddess Dzivaguru was challenged by Nosenga, the son of the sky-god, who was jealous of her wealth and wanted it for himself.  To combat him, she darkened her valley with fog and took the light away with her, so that when Nosenga arrived, he found only gloomy darkness.  He knew that she brought the sun out by luring in her pair of Sunbirds, so he devised a magical trap in which to catch them and so was able to bring back the dawn.
“But Dzivaguru wasn’t so easily defeated; she found a way to punish Nosenga and coincidentally all of humankind.  She decreed that the land would become parched; for every bad deed committed by the sons of Nosenga, she would withhold rain and send drought.  And invaders would come who would overthrow the worship of Nosenga.”
 Linna said, “That myth is another in a long string of pre-scientific explanations of natural phenomena, of why we have seasons and drought and day and night.  One greedy, fallible god being punished by another, and humans getting caught in the process.”
“With a moral twist,” added Avi.  “Be good or the goddess will send drought!”  
“Aw, well, I like it anyway,” said Robbie.  “The sun is a pair of golden swallows – who could object to that?  It’s beautiful!  Anything else, Kibby?”
“Well, only that on the continent of Afrik the stars and constellations are viewed a little differently than in Uropian-derived cultures.  The constellations have different names.  One of them is called the Flock of Birds.  It stretches from Capella in our constellation Auriga through Castor and Pollux all the way to Procyon in Canis Minor.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Robbie, “I can visualize the stars as an endless swarm of quelea birds!  Who knew?  I just thought the whole world saw the cosmos the same way!”
“And that’s it for me,” said Kibby.  “Lt. Running and I really had better go take the Bridge now.”
For sunbird myth: 
       Husain, Sharukh  and Bee Willey, “African Myths.” (I hand-copied notes on this from the Google Books version.) 

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